Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) announced Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2012, ending the combative liberal’s three-decade career in the House.
Frank, 71, is the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee and the architect, with former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), of the sweeping Wall Street regulatory reform law enacted in 2010.
“I was planning to run again, and then congressional redistricting came,” Frank said.
His retirement will deprive the House of one of its most colorful characters, a liberal stalwart known for his quick and often caustic wit.
First elected in 1980, Frank survived scandal early in his career and rose to become the nation’s most powerful openly gay elected official. After coming out publicly, he became a champion for gay rights and helped campaign for an end to the military’s ban on gays serving openly. The repeal of that policy took effect this year.
His legislative legacy is likely to be the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that passed in 2010 in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown that sent the economy into a tailspin in 2008. Hailed by the Obama administration, the law has drawn sharp criticism in the Republican presidential nomination fight, and one leading contender, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), even suggested that Frank be jailed, along with Dodd, for their support of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the lead-up to the financial crisis.
Frank’s announcement prompted a flood of accolades from Democrats, including a statement from President Obama that praised his work on financial regulatory reform.
“This country has never had a congressman like Barney Frank, and the House of Representatives will not be the same without him,” Obama said in a statement. “It is only thanks to his leadership that we were able to pass the most sweeping financial reform in history designed to protect consumers and prevent the kind of excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis from ever happening again.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former Speaker, called Frank “a trusted adviser and confidant.”
“His extraordinary career in public office will leave a lasting legacy on behalf of justice, human rights, consumer protection, affordable housing and better economic opportunity for all Americans,” Pelosi said.
Frank beat back an aggressive Republican challenge to keep his seat in 2010 in what was otherwise a disastrous year for Democrats. He told reporters he thought he would have won again in 2012, but conceded, “it would have been a tough campaign.” He said he knew he would want to retire after the next Congress and thought it would be unfair to ask new constituents in a redrawn district to support him for just one more term.
With typical candor, Frank plainly acknowledged his distaste for the less glamorous aspects of campaigning. “Look, I don’t like raising money,” Frank said.
And the famously cantankerous Democrat pointed out a bright side of life as a lame duck. “Maybe you’re going to laugh, but one of the advantages to me of not running for office is, I don’t even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don’t like anymore,” Frank said. As he predicted, the crowd of reporters and supporters in Newton erupted in laughter. “You may not think I’ve been good at it, but I’ve been trying.”
He said he would continue to be an advocate on many issues and said he thought he could be as effective, if not more so, on the “outside as inside.”
But Frank was adamant that he would not cash in on K Street.
“Let me very clear: I will neither be a lobbyist nor a historian. I promise you on both,” he said. He added that he planned to get rid of his Washington apartment and would spend his time in Newton and in Maine, where his longtime partner owns a house.
“My intention would be to do some combination of writing, teaching and lecturing,” Frank said.
He got a head start on the lecturing in a freewheeling retirement press conference, during which he expounded on everything from Republican presidential politics to the president’s decision to station American forces in Australia, which he said “baffles me.”
As to the possible nomination of Gingrich as the GOP presidential nominee, he quipped, “He would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Barry Goldwater.”
Frank also offered a broad history, from his point of view, of the financial crisis that brought down major Wall Street firms and forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into government conservatorship. “I, along with many others, did not see the crisis coming,” he said. “I was late in recognizing the problem, but it was when I was in the minority.”
The press conference, which began early and lasted more than a half-hour, provided a glimpse of what made Frank one of the most recognizable members of Congress in recent years. Apart from conspicuously combed hair, it was vintage Barney Frank: witty and combative, and quick to deride questions he characterized as “gotcha” or just plain dumb, like what he thought his legacy would be.
“People should leave their legacies to other people to describe.”
On Monday, there were many attempts. Democrats lauded his work on Wall Street reform and his status as a champion of gay rights, a cause more personal for him than for most other members of Congress.
The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), called Frank a “historic pioneer in American politics.”
Frank’s legislative career nearly ended before it really took off. Born and raised in New Jersey, he settled in Massachusetts after attending Harvard. He came out as gay in 1987, a risky public revelation that prompted then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill to tell Frank that he thought, had he not been gay, he could have been the first Jewish Speaker, according to a biography of Frank by Stuart Weisberg.
Two years later, he was officially reprimanded by the House after he acknowledged that he had employed a male prostitute and drug user, Steve Gobie, who had operated a prostitution service out of Frank’s apartment before the congressman kicked him out.
Frank established himself quickly as a liberal firebrand, and he spent years pushing to reduce military spending. He voted against authorizing both U.S-led invasions of Iraq, although he said Monday that he regretted his opposition to the mission initiated by the first President Bush in 1991.
As he rose in seniority, he became a Democratic leader on economic policy, and after the party assumed the House majority, it fell to him to help craft the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in 2008, which is now enormously unpopular with the public. He became a punching bag for many Republicans, who blamed him and the policies he supported for exacerbating the housing crisis.
Frank, who also championed the legalization of online gambling, said Monday he would spend his remaining time in Congress trying to protect the financial regulatory law he helped to write and fighting attempts to eliminate the Pentagon spending cuts triggered by last week’s failure of the congressional supercommittee to agree on a deficit-reduction package.
While Frank made no effort to disguise his partisanship, he drew praise from Republicans as well as Democrats upon his retirement announcement.
Rep. Pete King (N.Y.), a senior Republican on the Financial Services Committee, said Frank was “a good guy to work with” even though they disagreed with each other, he said, “90 percent of the time.”
“He can get to you sometimes,” King said. But while Frank was often partisan, King added, “he does it in such an intelligent way, you’ve got to hand it to him.” He said Frank was particularly helpful in passing legislation related to online gambling and restricting terrorist financing.
— Josh Lederman and Erik Wasson contributed to this article.